Writer’s double standards and discrimination against Israel

2014-02-14 00:00

A GOOD illustration of how prejudice works is when a particular group (or country) is singled out for special condemnation for faults that are, in fact, common to societies throughout the world. In this regard, one recalls the story (whether apocryphal or not) of the dean of a famous American university in the twenties, who justified the exclusion of Jews from his institution on the grounds that Jews cheated. When it was put to him that people who cheated could be found in every ethnic group, his answer was: “You’re confusing the issue. We’re talking about Jews.”

There is more than a hint of such malicious double standards in Mandisi Majavu’s article on black asylum seekers in Israel (“Israel’s society of fences: a solution to the ‘demographic problem”, The Witness, February 11). The obvious question to ask is why Israel is being singled out at all? It is a reality that African migrants seeking refuge from poverty, civil war or political oppression are confronted everywhere by discrimination and hostility from those among whom they hope to settle. One needs go no further than our own country to see how vulnerable such people are, not just in terms of xenophobic attacks from the local population, but also regarding the often harsh official measures taken to prevent their entering, or remaining in the country.

Much attention has been focused of late on the position of African refugees in Israel. By contrast, little if any has been drawn to the infinitely worse plight of Eritrean refugees who, for the past decade, have been confined in appalling conditions to refugee camps in Egypt and Sudan, of whom many have been subjected to rape and torture. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in fact, black economic migrants are subjected to various degrees of ill-treatment and exploitation. On what basis, then, does Majavu justify his depiction of Israel as being somehow uniquely guilty of misconduct regarding how African asylum seekers are treated, particularly as the situation in that regard is so much worse just across its borders?

Majavu’s article is replete with sweeping accusations against the Jewish state. He asserts, for example, that “mainstream Israeli institutions view Africans as inferior and the ‘other’”. Can this be the same country that from the eighties onwards airlifted virtually the entire Jewish community of Ethiopia to Israel — numbering well over 100 000 souls — and accorded them full democratic rights, economic assistance and citizenship rights? If Israel is institutionally racist in its policies towards blacks, why would it have gone to such enormous trouble and expense in order to increase its black population (and not by the mass importation of slaves either)?

This fact alone conclusively refutes Majavu’s theory, yet even here he seeks somehow to twist it to his advantage by arguing that there are much higher poverty levels among Ethiopian Jews, and that racist attitudes against them exist. In doing so, he conveniently overlooks the reality that similarly high poverty levels are to be found within minority black populations in virtually every country one cares to mention, as to negative racial attitudes against them.

So far as the implementation of measures to prevent people illegally entering the country goes, once again this is not something that is unique to Israel. Indeed, would Majavu be able to identify any state that does not maintain some kind of control over who can and cannot cross its borders? As for the fence that Israel has erected along its southern border to prevent illegal immigration, how does this differ from the physical barriers erected for the same purpose by, among many others, the United States along its border with Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia and Kuwait? Writing in the Guardian , David Henley suggests that “separation barriers” of some kind or another are being built at a record rate the world over. Why, then, is Israel especially blameworthy?

Another absurd contention by Majavu is that Israel must be held accountable for having contributed to the destabilisation of various northeastern African countries from which most black refugees in Israel are now seeking to escape. This would seem to typify the conspiracy-laden approach that many still adopt when explaining away Africa’s myriad troubles, whereby it is always some malign outside force that is to blame. In reality, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and other countries in this region suffer primarily from a wide range of essentially domestic scourges, ranging from Islamist radicalism and the oppression and violence that invariably accompany it, through to the wholesale suppression of basic human rights, piracy, slave trafficking and civil war.

It may, perhaps, be justifiable to hold Israel to a high standard of conduct regarding its treatment of others. Holding it to a double standard, however, is unacceptable. To single out for opprobrium one country over and above the many others that are as guilty or even guiltier of the same conduct is not only dishonest, but also profoundly unjust and discriminatory. This, in the end, is what characterises Majavu’s ill-considered screed. The end result is that in attempting to portray Israel as being a hotbed of anti-black racism, he has succeeded only in drawing attention to his own unreasoning bigotry.

• David Saks is the associate director for the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

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